The Iraqi super-yacht affair: The yacht that Saddam built

It's the yacht that puts the hyphen in 'dictator-ship': an 82-metre, £18m pleasure palace with heliport, gold taps, missile system and one dead, deposed, former owner. But whose is it now? By John Lichfield

For sale: charming 82-metre yacht with its own hospital and swimming pools, mosque, missile-defence system and mini-submarine. One careful owner. Would suit paranoid dictator or filthy-rich businessman trying to keep an ex-wife at bay. A snip at €24m (£18m).

There is one catch. The sale of the Ocean Breeze, formerly the Qadisiyah Saddam, may not be a simple affair. The yacht, now moored among other billionaires' vessels in the harbour at Nice on the French Mediterranean, once belonged to the late Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.

A shadowy company based in the Cayman Islands is trying to sell the mahogany-and-marble festooned floating palace on behalf of persons unknown. The cash-strapped Iraqi government, engaged in a relentless pursuit of Saddam's hidden billions, has just won an important legal battle in the Nice commercial court. The sale of the Ocean Breeze has been frozen under French law until its ownership is established.

The craft, built in Denmark in 1981, is being sold by the London-based luxury-yacht broker Nigel Burgess. Nothing on the Burgess company's website – www.nigelburgess.com – links the Ocean Breeze to Saddam. The site displays pictures of its opulent living rooms with their giant TV screens, and the master bedroom with its double-canopied bed dripping with gilt.

It describes the yacht as an 82m (269ft), 2,282-ton, twin-screw vessel with one master bedroom, nine further double bedrooms, four twins and 13 singles. "Moored: west Mediterranean. Price on application", reads the advertisement.

There is no mention on the site of the mini-submarine launch pod, the anti-aircraft missile-defence system or the fully-equipped clinic, complete with operating theatre. There is no mention of the mosque and the gold taps and the mahogany and marble interiors. There is no mention of the bulletproof windows and the several swimming pools and saunas.

The Burgess company says that ownership squabbles over luxury yachts are commonplace. As far as it is concerned, it is selling the vessel for its legal owner, whom the company chooses not to name.

The yacht has, in the past 18 years, been reported to be in the possession of first the Saudi and then the Jordanian royal families. According to French sources, the alleged owner is a front company, Sudley Limited, based at Georgetown in Grand Cayman. According to the Iraqi government, the real owners are the people of Iraq.

"Like all the rest of Saddam Hussein's wealth hidden abroad, we want to reclaim this boat to sell it and return the proceeds to the Iraqi government," an Iraqi official said. "We are not going to let go."

The Baghdad authorities have been tracking the yacht's movements around the Gulf and the Mediterranean for the past four years. Soon after the Ocean Breeze put into the port of Nice last November, a lawyer acting for the Iraqi authorities, Maître Ardavan Amir-Aslani, struck legal gold.

At his request, French police and a court bailiff boarded the yacht. A British crew member is said to have told the police that the vessel was a "royal yacht" and they had no right to come aboard. The police insisted. In the bowels of the boat, they found a document issued by Lloyd's of London, the insurance brokers, stating that the Qadisiyah Saddam belonged to the government of Iraq.

It was this document that persuaded the Nice tribunal de commerce to freeze the sale of the boat. No one representing the alleged owners in the Cayman Islands has since come forward to dispute the Iraqi claim – or the freeze on the sale.

The precise movements of the Ocean Breeze since the fall of Saddam – and even before – are something of a puzzle. There is no record that the Iraqi dictator ever set foot on her decks, or slept in her immense, canopied master bed.

The Qadisiyah Saddam, built by the Danish shipyard Helsingor Vaerft, was named after an Arab victory over the Persians in the 7th century. It was intended as a sister ship for Saddam's other yacht, the Al Mansur ("The Victor"), blown up in Basra harbour by US bombers during the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Danish builders signed confidentiality agreements promising never to reveal details of the yacht. Reports of its existence – and its unusual features – leaked out all the same. The boat was nicknamed "Saddam's toy".

The special features built into the vessel, according to Saddam's specifications, are reported to include a secret passageway to a mini-submarine pod to allow the exit of a dictator in a hurry. There is also an anti-aircraft missile system, now believed to have been disarmed. The yacht is also said to contain silver dining dishes for 200 people, but sleeping accommodation for just 42.

In 1986, five years after the Ocean Breeze was delivered to Iraq – in the middle of the country's war with its neighbour, Iran – Saddam is believed to have moved her to the Saudi port of Jeddah, out of the range ofIranian bombers.

According to one version of events, the Saudi royal family is said to have taken possession of the yacht after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Qadisiyah Saddam then allegedly became the al-Yamamah. There is no record, however, of the boat ever being used during the next 17 years. It remained in Jeddah, with a Greek crew of 12, sailing to Piraeus near Athens once every two years for servicing.

According to the French press, the Saudis recently gave the boat to King Abdullah II of Jordan as a present. In the autumn of last year, the newly named Ocean Breeze moved from Jeddah to the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. In November it sailed on to Nice and was put up for sale.

Maître Ardavan Amir-Aslani, acting for Baghdad, refuses to accept that the vessel ever belonged to either the Saudi or Jordanian royal families. "If it belonged to them, why did the Saudis never use it? Can you imagine the King of Jordan selling such a boat just after it came to his home port of Aqaba? None of it makes sense," he said.

The lawyer has no idea as to the identity of the would-be sellers of the boat from the Cayman Islands but suspects that they are connected to members of Saddam's family. The same problem has arisen for the alleged owners of much of the rest of the fortune of about $100bn (£51bn) that Saddam is thought to have amassed abroad, in real estate and secret bank accounts.

The executed Iraqi dictator erected a labyrinth of holding companies within holding companies to protect his wealth. "Each time we almost get a judgment in one country, it turns out that the real title holder is another company in another country," said Maître Amir-Aslani.

Governments around the world have been reluctant to order their banks to release cash and assets – even when substantial proof has been accumulated that they belonged to Saddam.

The Iraqi government scored a success recently in winning ownership of a villa near Cannes that belonged to Saddam's half-brother. First, lawyers had to dismantle a chain of paper ownership starting with a front company and ending with the cook, chauffeur and bodyguard who occupied the house.

Maître Amir-Aslani says that he is ready to fight a similar legal battle, however lengthy, to win control of the Ocean Breeze.

Many mysteries remain. Who is paying the Greek crew? Who ordered the boat to move through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean to Nice last November?

"We are convinced that behind this company in the Cayman Islands there are members of Saddam Hussein's family," Maître Amir-Aslani said. "We have proof that that yacht was built with money belonging to the Iraqi state, which is, therefore, its sole rightful owner.

"Anyone who claims to own the boat has to come forward with proof. Where is the bill of sale? Where is the proof of payment? If they say that it was a gift from Iraq, that can only be legal if there was a law or decree. And no such thing exists."

In any case, the lawyer asks, why have the alleged owner, or owners, not come forward?

The French court placed a freeze on the sale of the Ocean Breeze some 10 days ago. Since then, nothing has been heard from Sudley Limited, BP 309, Hugland House, Georgetown, Grand Cayman. The Ocean Breeze, still with its Greek crew of 12, may be moored at the harbour side in Nice for a little time to come.

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